Obama champions science... but where's NASA?

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April 27 2009 11:02 AM

Obama champions science... but where's NASA?

I have good news -- really, great news -- about Obama and science. But I'll warn you, I get a little ticked at the end here.

But first, this really is fantastic and highly encouraging news: speaking at the National Academy of Sciences today, President Obama confirmed what most of us in the reality-based community have been hoping for: a massive reinvestment in science. In his speech today, he outlines a tremendous increase in science investing by the government. It includes a doubling of the budget for the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, both of which are fundamental supporters of basic research in the U.S. It includes making permanent a tax credit to companies that do basic research and experimentation. It includes $150 billion over ten years to invest in sources of renewable energy and energy efficiency. And (perhaps most excitingly) it includes the creation of a new initiative: the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy, or ARPA-E.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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The original ARPA (as part of the Department of Defense) helped create the Internet. So we're talking big-time stuff here, and aimed squarely at scientific research, developing new methods of creating energy, and new ways of using it. I am completely and 100% behind an effort like this.

All in all, I feel an immense sense of relief. In his inauguration speech, Obama said he would restore science to its rightful place, something we desperately needed after eight years of the jack-booted heel that had been at science's neck. Not only has that heel being removed, a hand is being offered to help us up.

But there is still a sense of unease I have, and it became more clear as I read the President's speech.

NASA question
He mentions NASA several times, including how the Apollo program was our response to a huge challenge (the Soviet launch of Sputnik and the threat of an enemy's superiority in space), how it gave us new opportunities in science and research, and how it gave our country a renewed sense of exploration.

In fact, in that speech President Obama uses NASA many times as an analogy. But what about where the rubber hits the road; how does NASA fare in this huge increase in science investment? In that speech, NASA is mentioned only once when it comes to benefits of this new resurgence in science, and only then in NASA's ability to help investigate climate change.

While this is an important part of NASA's mission, it's only one part. I would say that NASA's main goal is to explore. To push back boundaries, to see how far we can go, to see just what we can do in space. I would bet solid money that most people in this country would agree with that; the most famous and publicly-known missions are Hubble, Cassini, Apollo and the like. That's what we see from NASA, and that's what the public needs to see.

But there's no mention of this in Obama's speech. No talk of solid reinvestment in NASA's space science, or of how it will help create the next generation of scientific exploration in astronomy, space, and aeronautics.

For sure, NASA's budget did pretty well in both the economic stimulus package and in the federal budget. But it bugs me that Obama didn't see fit to talk about this in his otherwise very lengthy speech. And if that seems petty of me, remember that right now NASA doesn't have a chief Administrator! Mike Griffin left the post months ago, and Obama has not appointed a new one. Why not? If NASA is a priority in Obama's mind, then why leave it headless for over three months?

Why pick the new White House puppy before the top dog at NASA?

That's what concerns me, very much. Obama talks a good game, and in almost all cases he has walked the walk as well. After eight years of lies, deception, and ideologically-driven politics trumping reality pretty much every time, a President who respects and understands the importance of science is like breathing fresh air after almost a decade of living in a windowless slaughterhouse.

But still. NASA has but a handful of Shuttle launches left before the fleet is retired next year. The Ares rockets are nowhere near ready to pick up the slack, and I'm guessing (and I sincerely hope I'm wrong) that we'll have more than a five year gap before NASA can launch humans into space again after the Shuttles shut down. Many NASA science programs are running late and over budget. Decisions need to be made, and soon, about what NASA will be doing in the coming years.

Heaping money on the space agency won't close the rocket gap, nor will it accelerate or fix the other problems. But a NASA without a permanent chief is one that cannot make the big decisions, or at least cannot make them and expect them to stick. And while NASA is a small part of the national budget (much less than 1%), it still looms large in the future of this country; when we have to start paying the Russians to launch our payloads into space you can just bet there will be some noise made about that.

So, President Obama: I praise you on your phenomenal support of science, and your understanding that we cannot simply restore it to where it was before Bush's Pyrrhic onslaught, but must increase its standing in our lives.

But whence NASA? When will you find the time to make sure our most famous and one of the most important agencies gets your attention, the attention it deserves and so desperately needs?

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